The trick to making your art unique and unmistakable in a sea of sameness

In the last few weeks, I found myself talking to two talented singer/songwriters who both have issues with letting their talent out.

These musicians are really trying to copy established acts instead of using their own unique voices. It makes them effectively unrecordable. Sure I could wack em on tape and hand over the masters and their Mums and girlfriends would probably pat them on the head but no one is buying those CDs because the singing has no heart at all. Matter of fact it ruins the music.

What to do?

Hold Me

The absolutely very first thing an artist needs to do is make something fantastic. Not average, more of the same cloneware, but something uniquely them.

This is not so easy now as it was in the 70’s or 80’s when people wanted a new artist to be unique & real more than perfect. These days it all is so packaged, even artists who suggest otherwise like Ed Sheeran. How to compete with that?

The answer is not to at all. Build your followers from people who don’t want that formula packaged stuff; those looking for a connection with a unique artist, not afraid to speak from their heart are your first target fans. Something that grabs and holds their attention is your you job right now. No more, no less.

Let Me Entertain You

Art means taking a leap and that means dealing with fear. What if it isn’t perfect, what if people don’t like it.

This is the trap. I see that most aspiring musicians are more concerned with making it sound perfect. They mis-define perfect to mean a great mix or something technical.

Perfect in all the arts comes from hitting people in the feeling bone and holding their grey little heart in the sun for three minutes.

Anyone with a good message can grab people if they focus on the message (and not the container). Just as a great song can work both as acoustic, and full 48-track studio mix, your message will work if you deliver that true.

It is hard to tell someone how to sing from themselves with all their heart. There is no simple trick to it. And yet that is exactly what it is.

Shout It Out

I’m no singer. I have sung and released those albums. I knew early on I wasn’t Freddie Mercury or Rod Stewart. I wasn’t even Joey Ramone. But I did get my songs out in my unique way.

I even got comments on that. I had comparisons with John Foxx & Richard Butler (early Ultravox & Psychedelic Furs respectively)! It wasn’t from my perfectly smooth delivery I can tell you. The record co who talked to me most about a contract offered a guitarist (from a charting band here in Oz) but not a singer.

Here was my approach to singing:

  1. I noticed the fear and did it anyway – giving in would have meant no songs, no album.
  2. I made a crap take and did it again – everyone does many takes so why should I be any different, it is normal.
  3. I accepted when I had the message on tape and moved on – the feeling is what counts, grab em by the balls n squeeze.
  4. I released that album and did it again – no record means I’m not a musician.

Each of those steps is required. It will be hard. Nothing that is worth anything comes without some difficulty. If you want to be comfortable, step back in line. If you want to do something special then be special.

But the reward is that I got to make my music and put it out there. I got to talk to the world. Did I get famous? You decide. After all, you are reading this.

The Zen of my 4-step method for doing what I don’t feel comfortable with is that I accept that the message is more important than anything else, my ego, the size of the kick drum, the tone of the guitar… I put all those aside and let the message come out the way it needs to.

Over time that has changed the outward form of my art some (and even seen me end up somewhere I thought un-cool back when I was 19) but I am merely the conduit to let the message out.

The Song Remains The Same

Something all good artists know is that they are not the famous one, their art might be but they are only the conduit to get the art out in the world. You can take that as New Age as you like but no matter whether working as a composer, mix engineer or producer, I know the song is what matters. I surrender myself to that. I fight for that.

I don’t care if you are making Pop, Rock, or Metal, it is all the same, it grabs me or it is rubbish. I’m not talking about what I like but what is good; the two don’t have to be the same. Part of a Producer’s job is to know the difference and to know what people will want to hear (and therefore buy) and help the artist get that recorded.

downloadPoint 4, releasing and doing it again is where a lot of the magic happens. You can see it all laid out on Chapter & Verse. If Bruce Springsteen had waited till he was great before joining a band and making a recording, you’d be saying who’s that. It is by making those first rough steps and completing them the best way he could at the time Bruce laid the foundation for the next songs. After a few rounds, his Bruceness was coming to the fore and when he hit “Growin’ Up” he had something amazing and unique in the way he crafted and delivered his stories. That is what made him The Boss.

 

Famous SIngers

spot the Great singer

 


This post grows from a few places as life has that habit of putting things up at the same time to show us something. Here are three posts from Seth Godin that appeared over three days:

On being discovered

Wouldn’t that be great?

Great if you could share all your wisdom on a popular podcast, or be featured on Shark Tank? Great if you had a powerful agent or bureau or publisher? Great if you could get admitted to an internship program that would lead to a well-attended gig on the main stage? Great if the CEO figured out just how committed you are and invited you to her office?

The thing about being discovered is that in addition to being fabulous, it’s incredibly rare. Because few people have the time or energy to go hunting for something that might not be there.

The alternative?

To be sought out.

Instead of hoping that people will find you, the alternative is to become the sort of person these people will go looking for.

This is difficult, of course, because it means you have to create work that might not work. That you have to lean out of the boat and invest in making something that’s remarkable. That you have to be generous when you feel like being selfish.

Difficult because there’s no red carpet, no due dates and no manual.

But that’s okay, because your work is worth it.

then

“I have fear”

There’s a common mistranslation that causes us trouble.

We say, “I am afraid,” as if the fear is us, forever. We don’t say, “I am a fever” or “I am a sore foot.” No, in those cases, we acknowledge that it’s a temporary condition, something we have, at least for now, but won’t have forever.

“Right now, I have fear about launching this project,” is quite different from, “I’m afraid.”

and my personal pet peeve

Faux intimacy

True connection is a frightening prospect.

When you are seen by someone else, really seen, it hurts even more if you’re ultimately rejected. When we connect, we make promises, buy into a different future, engage with another, someone who might let us down (or we might let them down).

Far easier, of course, to do something more shallow.

A friend on social media is not like a friend in real life.

And so, we sit at dinner, browsing on our phone instead of connecting with the person across from us. Because the phone promises instant gratification, an exciting dopamine hit, and plenty of faux intimacy.

Which is great as far as it goes, but no, it’s not the same.

Famous SIngersWhen looking for an image I went to Google and started with Singer. That yielded a lot of what looked like clip art which is the exact opposite of what I want the article to say. I then tried Famous Singers thinking I’d get the great names. I got a lot of faces, some of which I agree are famous but it takes four lines (28 images) before I am offered anyone who is truly famous in the sense of being a great artist – David Bowie. No wonder the kids struggle. Line one should have been something like Elvis, Dylan, Springsteen, Billy Joel, George Jones, Patsy Cline…

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